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Thursday 13 October 2011

Where the chips fall - platform dominator for 2012

It's been about a year since I put my prognosis skills on the line and tried to predict where technology and consumer products are heading. Since today is National Fail Day in Finland, perhaps it's time to try again. Lets see how right or wrong I end up being.

Last year I noted a couple of things about mobile platforms and of the software environments best suited for creating apps on them. While this year has seen a lot of development on those fronts, little of it has been in surprising directions. HTML5 is coming, but not here yet. If WebGL and Intel's River Trail project were supported by the Big Three (IE, Firefox and WebKit, ie Safari/Chrome), that'd make an amazing game platform - but at least the latter is research-only at this point, and IE9 isn't going to support either. In the meantime, Adobe finished Flash 11, which now has hardware-accelerated 3D in addition to a pretty good software runtime, and, after only 10 days out, already has 42% reach for consumer browsers (at least judging by stats on habbo.com). Like I've said a long time, Flash gets a lot of undeserved crap due to the adware content created on it. We won't get rid of that by changing tech, and platforms should be judged by their capabilities in the hands of good developers, not by mediocrity. And, as far as mobile goes, the trend continues -- iPhone and Android battle it out, now also in courts as well as in consumer markets, while everything else falls under the wagon. If you're creating an app -- do it either with a cross-platform native toolchain, or with HTML5. If you're doing a game, do it with Unity or Flash, and build a native app out of it for mobile.

The interesting thing, to me, is playing out on the Internet. Google+ came out as a very nice product with well-balanced feature set, but (fairly predicably, though I was rooting for it) failed to catch the early adopter fancy for long enough to displace Facebook in any niche. Facebook, on the other hand, scared (or is going to scare) 40% of their audience by announcing Timeline (eek, privacy invasion!). Brilliant move -- you can't succeed today without taking such leaps that nearly half of your audience will be opposed to them, at least initially. Smaller changes simply aren't meaningful enough.

So, I'm betting on Facebook. I'd also guess that once they get Facebook Credits working outside of the Canvas, they're going to demand that any app using Facebook Connect log-ins will accept Credits for payment. I'd hazard a guess they're even going to demand FB Credits exclusivity. They'll fail the latter demand, but that won't stop them from trying it. Having your app's/game's social publishing automatically done by Facebook simply by feeding them events, and not having to think about which ones are useful to publish, is just such a big time saver for a developer, no one will want to miss out on it.

Not even Zynga. They're doing this destination-site, we're-not-gonna-play-inside-Facebook-anymore strategy, but continue to use Facebook Connect for log-ins. That's not because FB Connect is so much more convenient than own username and password (though it is), but because even they can't afford to let go of the "free" access to people's social network. That's the power of Timeline and the new, extended Graph API.

The chips are still in the air. When they fall, I think Facebook will be stronger than ever, but strong enough to displace the "rest of the Internet"? No. As a developer, I want to push Facebook the data for in-game activities, because that saves me time doing the same thing myself. As a publisher, I'm unsure I want Facebook to have all that info, exploiting them for their purposes, risking my own ability to run a business. As a consumer, it makes me uneasy that they have all that info about me, and while I can access and control quite a lot of it, I can't know what they're using it for. I don't think that unease will be enough to stop me or most other consumers from feeding them even more data of our lives, likes and activities. Still, they're only successful doing this as long as they don't try to become a gatekeeper to the net - nor do they need to do that, since they get the data they want without exerting control over my behavior. Trying to fight against that trend is going to be a losing strategy for most of us - possibly even for Google. Apple and Microsoft won't need to fight it, because they're happy enough, for now at least, to simply work with Facebook.

Sunday 2 May 2010

On rich web technologies

For the past week, the technology world has been unable to discuss anything but Apple's refusal to allow Flash applications on the iPhone and iPad, and Steve Jobs's open letter which paints this as a technology question and Apple's position as one of protecting consumer interests by ensuring quality applications. It would be incredibly naive to take that literally. No, of course it's all about business control.

Charlie Stross has written a great, if speculative piece on the bigger picture. I think Charlie is spot-on - Apple is seeing a chance to disrupt the PC market, and wants to finish at the top, holding all the aces. That might even happen, given how badly other companies are addressing the situation, but if it did, it would be anything but good for the consumer - or for the small developer.

The business interest

Apple today is a $43 billion annual revenue, $240 billion market cap giant, give or take. Out of that value, 40% or so is riding on the iPhone, and Steve is clearly taking the company to a direction where devices running the iPhoneOS will replace the Macs, so that share is only increasing. Right now, they have more resources to do this than anyone else in the world, and least legacy to worry about, given that despite the rising market share and the title of leading laptop vendor, computers running Mac OS X are still a minority market compared to all the Windows powered devices from a legion of other makers.

The company's DNA, and Steve's personal experience over the past 25 years has taught them that an integrated, tightly controlled platform is something they are very good at, but that earlier mistakes of not controlling the app distribution as well left them weak. They're not going to repeat that mistake. And certainly they'll try to ensure that not only do the iPhone and iPad have the best applications, but that those applications are only available on Apple devices.

Adobe, despite their history of dominating many design and content production software niches and a market cap of $18 billion, is tiny in comparison. Furthermore, the Flash platform is a visible but financially less relevant part of Adobe's product portfolio (though exact share of Flash is buried inside their Creative Solutions business segment). Even disregarding that Apple can, as the platform owner, dictate whatever rules they want for the iPhoneOS, Adobe símply can not win a battle of resources against Apple.

But this fight is not about Flash on the iPhone - it's about Apple's control of the platform in general. Whether or not it's true, Apple believes tight control is a matter of survival for them.

The technical argument

Apple wants to make it seem like they're doing this because Flash is bad technology. As I wrote above, and so many others have described better than I have, that's a red herring. It's always convenient to dress business decisions behind seemingly accurate technical arguments ("Your honor, of course we'd do that, but the tech just doesn't work!"). Anyway, let's look at that technical side a bit.

First, lets get the simple bit out of the way. Flash is today most often used to display video on web sites. However, this is not about video, and video has never been Flash's primary point. It just happened to have a good install base and decent codecs at a time in 2005 when delivering lots of video bits started to make sense and YouTube came along to popularize the genre. In fact, it was completely superior for the job compared to the alternatives at the time, such as Real Player. The real feature, however, was that Flash was programmable, which allowed these sites to create their own embedded video players without having to worry about the video codecs.

By that time, Flash had already gained somewhat of a bad reputation for being the tool with which some seriously horrible advertising content had been made, so the typical way to make the web fast was to disable Flash content - rendering most ads invisible. I'm pretty sure for many YouTube was the first time there really was an incentive to have Flash in their browsers at all. That is, unless you liked to play the casual games that already then were also often created with Flash.

But that's all history, what about the future? Adobe certainly needs to take quite a lot of the blame for the accusations leveled against Flash - in particular, the way Flash content slows a computer down even when nothing is visible (as in, the 10 Flash-based adverts running in a browser tab you haven't even looked at in the last half an hour), or that yes, it does crash rather frequently. Quite a few of those problems are being addressed by Flash Player 10.1, currently in beta testing and to be released some time in the next months. Too little, too late, says Apple, and many agree.

I would, too, except for the fact that despite the issues, Flash is still the leading and best platform for rich web applications. It took that position from Java because it was (and is) lighter and easier to install, and keeps that position now against the much-talked-about HTML5 because the latter simply isn't ready yet, and once it is, will still take years to be consistently available for applications (that is, until everyone has upgraded their browsers). Furthermore, it's quite a bit easier to create something that works by depending on Flash 10 than to work around all the differences of Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Opera and so on.

But that's exactly what Steve is saying, isn't it? That these cross-platform Flash applications simply can't provide the same level of sophistication and grace as a native application on the iPad. Well, maybe that's true today. Maybe it's even true after Adobe finally releases 10.1's mobile editions on the Android. And given the differences in the scale of resources Apple and Adobe can throw at a problem, maybe it's true even with Flash Player 10.2 somewhere down the road.

But that doesn't matter. What matters is what developers do with the tools given to them, because the tools themselves do nothing. There's plenty of horrible crap in the ranks of App Store's 200,000 applications, and there's plenty of brilliant things done with Flash and AIR. Among the best of the best, which platform has the greatest applications? That's a subjective call that I will let someone else try to answer.

I will say this: all technology is fated to be replaced by something better later. At least ActionScript3 and Flash's virtual machine provide a managed language that lets application developers worry about something else than memory allocation. Sure, it wasn't all that hot until version 10, and still loses to Java, but it sure is better than Objective-C. If we're now witnessing the battle for platform dominance for the end of this decade, I sure would like to see something else than late 80s technology at the podium.

The consumer position

Apple wants to provide the consumer a polished, integrated experience where all pieces fit together, and most of them are made by Apple. The future of that experience includes control of your data as well. Put your picture albums in Apple's photo service, your music library in iTunes, your home video on iMovie Cloud, and access it all with beatiful Apple devices. Oh, you don't want to be all-Apple? Too bad. That's what you get.

Or, you can choose something where you'll have choice. If you believe Steve Jobs, that choice is between dirt, smut and porn, but his interest is to scare you back to Apple, so take that with a grain of salt. Me, I've never liked being dictated to, so I'll be choosing the path where I can pick what I want, when I want it. Sure, it'll mean I'll miss some of the polish (iPhone is by far the nicest smart phone today, and the iPad sure feels sweet), but nevertheless, I respect my freedom to choose more. Today, it means I'll choose Android, and am looking forward to playing Flash games and using AIR applications on tablets powered by it.